Spotlight: Riparian Areas

We studied riparian areas with the Urban School this week. Here is some awesome information we shared with our students to get them thinking about the project!

What is a Riparian Area?

The term “riparian” is defined as “vegetation, habitats, or ecosystems that are associated with bodies of water (for example streams, springs or ponds) or depend on perennial or intermittent surface or subsurface water.” Put more simply, riparian areas are the green ribbons of trees, shrubs, and herbs growing along watercourses. Some riparian features we enjoy include the cottonwood groves where we like to picnic along sandy riverbeds, the green, shady areas next to the stream where we like to fish, and wetlands with ducks, tadpoles and dragonflies.

Riparian areas occur in a wide range of climatic, hydrologic, and ecological environments. Different latitudes and altitudes can support very different riparian communities. This is caused primarily by differences in soil, water and temperature. In the western United States, riparian areas occur from high elevation montane meadows or forests through intermediate elevation woodlands to low elevation shrublands and desert grasslands.

In the western United States, riparian areas comprise less than 1 percent of the land area, but they are among the most productive and valuable natural resources. There is a significant difference between the water-rich riparian areas and the arid uplands. Riparian areas are the major providers of habitat for endangered and threatened species in the western desert areas. In the humid east, the riparian areas are more similar to the uplands. In many areas, the separation of the riparian zone from the upland is not distinct.

Riparian Areas are Ecosystems. An ecosystem is a functional system that includes both abiotic part in the organisms, such as the plants and animals, and an abiotic part, which factors in their immediate environment such as soil and topography. These organisms interact both with each other and with their environment. Each ecosystem is unique because the organisms and the environment differ from other ecosystems.

The three main characteristics that define riparian area ecosystems are hydrology, soils and vegetation. These reflect the influence of additional moisture compared to the adjacent, drier uplands. Riparian areas are the transition zones between aquatic (water-based) systems and terrestrial (land-based) systems, and usually have characteristics of both. These characteristics make it habitat for a larger number of species of plants and animals.

Because riparian areas are at the margin between water and land, their soil was most likely deposited by water and could be washed away by water. Protecting soil, streambanks, or water edges from excess erosion is an important function of riparian plants. Thus, properly functioning riparian areas absorb the water, nutrients, and energy from big events and use them to recover from disturbances while improving water quality. The toughness of riparian plants with dense, strong root systems, stems that slow floodwaters, and maybe woody debris that forms pools, adds to riparian stability and habitat diversity.

Some riparian areas, especially those not functioning properly or in high energy – high sediment locations are very dynamic and disturbance-driven. Plant communities may be susceptible to rapid change, if soil and water conditions change dramatically. These changes might include:

Flooding or lack of flooding either temporary or more long term, as caused by beavers, or man-made structures;

  • Deposition of sediment on streambanks and across floodplains;
  • Dewatering of a site by a variety of means; and
  • Changes in channel location or elevation.

Significant differences in water availability due to precipitation between the eastern and western United States have led to major differences in these regions’ riparian areas. Riparian areas in the arid western United States have different plant composition but are also more lush than their adjacent uplands. Another important difference between the eastern and western United States that influences riparian areas are the pathways that water follows to reach streams. In the eastern United States, more water infiltrates the soil resulting in more subsurface flow reaching the stream and thus, more soil moisture. In the western United States, there is more overland flow reaching the stream.

Riparian Areas: Different but the Same

Although riparian areas can differ greatly, they all have several things in common. They are shadier, cooler, and moister than the adjacent upland environments. A wide variety of animals are attracted to these areas including insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals. Suitable habitat (food, water, and shelter) is often provided in riparian areas to support these animals which may not occur in surrounding drier areas.

To find out more, you can read the full article here.

Our King’s Academy (TKA) Program This Fall

During the last two weeks, Headwaters Science Institute worked with the entire TKA 7th grade to help students conduct their own independent scientific research. The highlight of this program was the Friday field trip to Alviso Marina County Park where students put their own experiments into action studying the salt marsh wetlands in the South San Francisco Bay. A big thank you to all the parent drivers who made this program possible and we hope to see you all at the science presentation night at TKA on Thursday the 17th.

We are very excited to share some of the creative research projects designed by the students at TKA. Read on to hear about a few of these great research projects!

Group 1: Raymond, Aarav, Emily, Elisee

Question: How do the chemicals in the polluted pond affect the number of insects around it?

Claim: There will be more insects at the non-polluted pond than the polluted pond. It may be harder for the insects to find food at the polluted pond.

Group 2: Nathan Leong, Daniel Lee, Joanna Lee

Question: How does the amount of salt in the water affect transparency?

Claim: That the saltwater would make the water less clear. We think that the dissolved salt would make the lake denser and less clear.

Group 3: Andrew Scharfy, Natalie Thwaites, Tega. Sebeni, Christopher Wang

Question: How do Savvanah sparrows affect the population of crustaceans, snails, and grass.

Claim: They keep the populations from sky rocketing. We think this is true because the sparrows eat the crustaceans, snails, and eat the grass seeds, which prevents them from overpopulation.

Group 4: Camila, Connor, Kevin, Libby

Question:  How has the trash in the environment affected the water and the land around it?

Claim: The water will be polluted and some animals may not be able to survive there anymore. People leave trash on the streets and the trash can be transferred to the salt ponds. Then the trash brought by the current will be washed ashore and then pile up.

Group 5: Reid Black, Alex Mazin, Angelina Komashko, Jenine Fong

Question:  How does the nearness to an active saltwater pond affect the amount of grass?

Claim: We think that the closer we go to the saltwater the less grass there will be.  Because organisms can’t survive on salt.

Group 6: Sofia P., Caleb K., Brandon M., Italia A.

Question:  How do the herbivores affect the plant population?

Claim: We think that with more herbivores there will be fewer plants and fewer herbivores should lead to more plants. We think our claim will be true because organisms that feed off each other are most likely to change over time.

Group 7: Hengrui, Kenneth, Morgan, Natalie  

Question:  How does the distance away from saltwater affect the height of the grass?

Claim: We think the further away grass is from saltwater, the taller the grass will be. This is because salt might decrease the quality of the water the plants use. 

All of these TKA students have been working hard to graph and analyze the data they collected during their field day. Student pre and post-program surveys suggest that these projects help students gain valuable critical thinking skills. Between the start and end of the program students ability to correctly interpret complex graphs increased by 21% moreover, 97% of students report overcoming a challenge to complete their projects. All of us at Headwaters are excited to see their presentations on the evening of the 17th and hope to see you there as well.

Latitude High School on YouTube

We just added this great video to our YouTube channel showing more of what we do on Donner Summit. In this program, we worked with students from Oakland’s Latitude 37.8 High School during a 3-day-overnight on Donner Summit! Here are some insights from the school’s founder John Bosselman and physics teacher Regina Kruglyak.

Head Royce on YouTube and more extras…

A glimpse into our programs:

Many ask us what our programs actually look like. Here’s a short video showing the hard work of one of the groups from Head Royce School on Donner Summit studying biodiversity. After watching, read on to hear more about how these research projects are developed by our students during their time in the program.

How students develop their research:

We are big on asking questions. So, during a program, we provide some pre-program reading to give background and context to the concepts we’ll be working with. Then, we introduce students to the research methods commonly used to study those concepts. From there, the possibilities are endless. We gently guide students to form and test their own questions surrounding the research topic. But, mostly, they do it on their own! We are frequently amazed seeing what they come up with to study.

During our Fall 2019 program with Head Royce, our Executive Director Meg had this to say about the kids’ projects:

“One thing that I was most impressed with was the diversity of questions from the same introduction. The kids really went in different directions and the teachers really helped us honor that. The kids asked a huge variety of questions during the question asking time.  I thought it was going to be hard to narrow down, but there were some kids that really knew what they wanted to study. I was impressed that they all were able to take their specific topic and talk about how it fits into the health of the ecosystem. I liked that they got that there are a lot of different ways to assess ecosystem health depending on the ecosystem and what you are looking at.”

Headwaters program with Head Royce Academy on Donner Summit

Meg and Dan just finished an incredible weekend with the AP Environmental Science students from the Head Royce School in Oakland. These 14 students and two science teachers spent the weekend at Donner Summit doing research projects. This group did 5 different research projects with wide-ranging topics, but all projects were based around learning more about the ecosystems on Donner Summit. 

Four girls, Hana, Nora, Aicha, and Chloe that were interested in soil nutrient distribution in the ecosystem. They focused on phosphorus because it is a limiting nutrient that can affect plant growth. They ran transects away from the lake for 50 meters and found that there wasn’t a big variation in phosphorus, but that is most abundant close to the lake bed. They concluded that overall the donner summit area is mainly depleted of phosphorus in the soil. 

Jihae, Olivia, and Siena studied algae in two different waterways, the Headwaters of the South Yuba River in Van Norden Meadow, and Castle Creek where it meets Van Norden meadow. They chose this topic because meadows and creeks are critical water sources home to a range of species. While algae can be a great food source for some animals and insects algae blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and make it hard for animals to live there. They found that both Van Norden and Castle Creek had low levels of phosphate, nitrate, and nitrite as well as algae. Overall, they concluded that both waterways are very healthy and functioning well. 

Matt and Daniel spent the weekend in the forest. They studied how do soil conditions (pH and moisture) affect tree growth and composition? They found that there was not a strong relationship between soil pH or moisture and tree size. They concluded that they could only test the pH of the very top layer of soil, but that the tree is mainly accessing nutrients from deep in the ground. If they were to try this again they would try to get soil samples from deeper. 

Awo, Tess, and Jonathan studied the differences in water quality and macroinvertebrate diversity and abundance between Van Norden Meadow and Castle Creek. They found that the water quality was very similar between the two sites, however, the temperature was significantly colder in the creek and that diversity and abundance of bugs was significantly higher in Castle Creek than in Van Norden meadow. They concluded that the creek is a better ecosystem for the pollution intolerant macroinvertebrates.

Lastly, Lu and Hannah studied lichen. Their research question was, “Do primary or secondary growth forests provide a better habitat for lichens?” They found that significantly more trees in primary forests have lichen growing on them.  Lichen are fragile and need healthy ecosystems to grow. They concluded that the primary growth forests have better overall health and a larger diversity of trees then the secondary growth forests. It is important to maintain our forests. 

Lu Paris will be presenting her research on Lichen at the Celebrate Science Symposium on October 20th.

Meg, Dan, Gene and Hanna (their science teachers) learned a lot from their diverse research interests. We want to give a huge thank you to Gene and Hanna for going the extra mile to allow their students to pursue their research interests and helping mentor them on their projects.